No mass sentiment, no matter how widespread and strongly felt, can find concrete and effective expression unless it is organized, focused and led. People who blame the American people for their apathy and conclude that the public is principally (or wholly) at fault for this situation fail to recognize that all societies (and any group of any kind) need leadership.
If the existing leaders refuse to abide by the popular will and continue to collude with the rest of the leadership class in this refusal, they can effectively prevent the popular will from being done. In 2006 the American electorate swept the GOP majority out of Congress because the people wanted the Iraq war to end and the Bush White House held to account. The Democratic controlled Congress not only didn’t do these things, they actually gave Bush more money for the illegitimate wars than Bush asked for and legalized after the fact the felonious crimes Bush had been caught committing!
What can stop political leaders from refusing to abide by public sentiment when the mass media refuses to reveal the full and true nature of popular sentiment and act as flacks for the political leadership class?
If the people as a whole don’t know what’s really going on because they rely for most or all of their news on the same institutions that are acting in fundamental opposition to the majority’s interests, then how can an insurgent movement possibly come into being? How can the people in sufficient numbers come to know that they are being betrayed at the highest levels of their economy and government if the media colludes overall with those carrying out these dirty deeds?
Even if everyone in a society wanted to do something that the existing leadership refused to do, they cannot see these sentiments translated into a material reality unless those sentiments are focused and concretely led by political leaders. Had any recognized major political leader such as John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton, or major news organization such as the New York Times and CBS, called for impeachment and condemned the lying, spying and torture being carried out by the Bush White House, there would have been a massive outpouring of public support for this. No one would be any longer wondering why the American people had been so passive in the face of grave injustices because the evidence of their sentiment would be manifest. The virtually universal class solidarity demonstrated by this country’s ruling circles against the very idea of impeachment meant that these mass sentiments could not find an outlet for full expression and had to remain on the level of pervasive grumbling throughout the country over lunch counters, dinner tables, around the water cooler, in letters to the editor, in answers to pollsters, and the occasional demonstration of insufficiently large numbers of the most informed, determined, and courageous people.
Even among those who were appalled by the Bush White House and even among those who feel great misgivings about what Obama did as a Senator and has done and not done as President, have trouble thinking outside of the box of Democratic Party politics and, more generally, electoral politics. An exceedingly strong pull keeps people in line to gauge what is possible and imaginable by what the existing parties offer. Anything outside the chilling parameters of what the existing parties and mass media are willing to present as “realistic” and “possible” is commonly not even conceptualized seriously by most of the even politically aware segments of the populace.
Yet this is precisely what must be done. Anything else is illusion.
Elections that the people are permitted to vote in are quite similar to the way a parent gives choices to their small children: you can have the peas or the spinach. If the child chooses the peas, does that mean that that child is in “charge” of what it eats? If we decide as voters which mainstream candidate – who has been backed by mainstream media and by the two parties’ leadership and therefore permitted to participate in the major debates and given the stamp of approval as “legitimate” candidates – does that make this a democracy? Does this mean that the people’s will is done?
As I wrote in my June 16, 2008 article “Of Whales and Worms:”
“How can the same Democratic Party, and the same specific individuals, who have co-operated in, permitted and/or legalized the Bush regime’s atrocities – including torture and war crimes – now tell us that the candidate that they endorse is the solution to the horrid things that this system and these individuals have themselves facilitated and colluded in?
“This is like a worm giving birth to a full-grown whale.”
Unless and until a new leadership is constituted from among the public that becomes a new, competing, legitimate authority that a large portion of the people eventually follow and support outside of the electoral arena, then the existing bankrupt leadership will continue to get their way and will at most have to make some cosmetic changes in order to claim that things are really changing for the better.
How can a competing alternative leadership emerge when the existing institutions militate against just such a possibility? How can enough people be exposed to and take seriously the offer of an alternative leadership and an alternative path when the organs of opinion-making are in the hands of gatekeepers who are the adversary?
If millions of Americans took to the streets to demonstrate and displayed a willingness to persist in their popular upheaval through various forms (tent cities, street blockades, ongoing pickets, etc.), then the political situation would be dramatically different and popular action would have produced a new situation in which substantial changes could potentially occur.
To adequately address why this hasn’t happened we need to get to the bottom of what’s holding people back from acting in this way.
A Competing, Legitimate Authority
Constituting a new legitimate authority from outside of the ranks of the existing leadership class and the major organs of opinion-making represents an extremely difficult feat. For that reason it hardly ever happens. Yet this is exactly what must happen; it offers the only hope for real change.
Is there a basis for this to happen? Yes. Does actualizing this possibility present tremendous difficulties and obstacles? Yes. Is it impossible? No.
There are really two dimensions to this question. The first is the moral dimension and the second is a practical question.
Often times when one discusses these matters with people, those who object that such a strategy will never succeed and say that if they could be convinced that it would succeed then they would participate in such an endeavor, are really saying in essence that they don’t think it needs to happen. Their objection on the surface is about strategy and about practicalities, but their real objection is that they don’t see a real necessity for a fight to be waged against the status quo. Perhaps some reforms need to be made, but that is all.
The most important question isn’t one of strategy. The most important question is one of morality and worldview. Are the express violation of the rule of law, the carrying out of torture as policy, and the repeated commission of the gravest war crime of all grounds for urgent, passionate, determined, and unyielding popular action? Can outrageous crimes against humanity be turned over to others to handle for the rest of us? And if those others, our existing government leaders, don’t handle these crimes but let the perpetrators go, are our consciences salved by the fact that we voted for them and if they don’t do what must be done, then we are satisfied merely to grumble and complain about them and the apathy of the rest of America? Does knowing that disaster is in the works yet not doing everything possible to change the course of horrendous events satisfy enough of us that this will be allowed to happen?
“The water line is rising and all we do is stand there. The water line is rising and all we do is stand there. The water line is rising and all we do is stand there.”
Guardians of Society and of the Future
The guardians at our gates are asleep. The water line is rising and they are sleeping off their partying.
To move a society, to bring about radical or revolutionary changes, does not require that a majority of people act in concert. It requires only that a relatively small minority of people come forward to lead much larger numbers of people. It requires 1-3% of the population to play that leading role. Any society must lean heavily on its leading citizens to safeguard its most precious values such as civil liberties, science, culture, music, and art since the majority of people in any society are not positioned to be the curators of these things. Critical legal matters most people are not conversant in: the preservation of crucial matters of great subtlety such as habeas corpus rights and due process are like sealing the cracks in the dike lest the dam burst and flood the countryside. If the cracks aren’t detected and allowed to languish by society’s guardians, then the disaster will come inevitably and wreck havoc, perhaps irrevocably.
Groups and societies rely on their leaders to act as the defenders of the treasures of a society – its highest and most important values are precious and vulnerable. A society’s best thinkers, writers, musicians, artists, performers, professionals, and engineers push the whole society forward. They reflect the collective wisdom, experiences, activities and imagination of the masses of people, but they reflect those things in a concentrated and advanced way and are its leading edge.
The people now in charge of things in the government and in the mass media are not good guardians. They are the very opposite of this. The Democrats among them are cooperating with and colluding with people who see the law as an obstacle to their aims and who think that lying, spying, war crimes, and torture are perfectly fine.
A disaster of massive dimensions is gathering like black clouds massing on the horizon. We are in crisis and at a crossroads. In the face of this grand abdication of responsibility and profoundly immoral stance by the existing leaders and opinion-makers a substitute political leadership and political movement must emerge.
As I wrote in my book, Impeach the President: the Case Against Bush and Cheney:
“Our Hope: the Popular Forces
“Who are these popular forces? There are two groups here, the lower strata and the middle class. The lower strata includes the working class and it includes people like those left to fend for themselves, to drown and die in New Orleans by the Bush administration, who had no way out of the city and who couldn’t afford even bus fare, who were called ‘looters’ by the media and government when they broke into stores and restaurants in order to feed and give water to everyone who hadn’t had any in days. These people recognize from their everyday experiences in this society that those who rule, those who run this country, aren’t compassionate and aren’t legitimate. The lower strata only go along with the status quo because they know that if they don’t they will get cracked on the head by a policeman’s club or worse. …
“The cynicism the oppressed feel about the legitimacy of those who rule over them and over the whole of society comes from the lessons of their everyday existence. The dispossessed do not rise up in ordinary times not mainly because they are under illusions about the system’s nature but mainly because they know that if they rose up they would be immediately crushed by the forces of the state. …
“The middle classes, by contrast, go along because they have a strong belief in this system’s legitimacy and the electoral process in particular. They believe that the candidate with the most votes takes office. They believe that their vote matters and that public opinion overall guides public policy. They believe that America is a democracy. Should enough of the middle classes conclude that the process is rigged, illegitimate, and corrupt, that those who lead us are dangerously incompetent, and that they are endangering our lives and this planet, elements of the middle class will, together with the lower strata, begin to act outside the normal channels of electoral politics and shake this system to its core.” (Pp. 41-42)
End of Part Two.
DENNIS LOO is an associate professor of Sociology at Cal-Poly Pomona. He is the co-author of Impeach the President: the Case Against Bush and Cheney. He can be reached at http://dennisloo.blogspot.com.